Saturday, June 19, 2004

Jack's OS X Review

One of Jack's clients has way too much money. Which is good for Jack, so no complaints here. I was at the client's site a month ago or so and was setting up a new firewall for a web-based application. I needed a system with a web-browser to configure the hardware-based device, and hadn't brought along my Netlux NX-755 Notebook, which is the main system I use at Client sites and in the office.

I highly recommend Netlux notebook computers for those of you who are technically inclined. You get all of the features you're going to find in a mobile workstation from Dell or Toshiba, and save about $400-$500 in the process. The downside? You don't get the hand-holding Technical Support you might get from the Tier I vendors, and all the software (other than the OS) that a lot of those vendors include. I usually order it with no OS, and load Windows XP Professional (I have a Microsoft Action Pack Subscription) and some Linux distro in a dual-boot mode (currently Fedora Core 2 - Review to come later).

OK - This isn't a Netlux review, back to the matter at hand.

So I ask one of the Client IT Drones (actually, they aren't drones, they are all nice people) for a PC to use. He hands me his Apple PowerBook G4 - 17 which is sitting off to the side on what looks like a junk table, recharging. I had seen him using it many times in the past, in fact he also had a G5 desktop with a 23-inch HDTV Cinematic Display at one time, which has now found its way to the Advertising Department. (Though he kept the display, gee - wonder why.) He was typing away on a new Toshiba 17 Satellite Multimedia Extreme notebook (also with a 17" display, like the Powerbook), which a business partner of mine also owns. Very nice system as well.

I fired up the PowerBook, which booted to a normal OS X desktop. It has a 'Dock' at the bottom of the screen - you roll your pointer over each of the icons on the Dock, which has an smooth animated look and feel, and click on the program you want. I was expecting to see Safari, the often touted web-browser for OS X. Instead, the first icon on the Doc after the 'Finder' was Internet Explorer. IE on the Mac? I clicked on the icon using the single-button touchpad. I'm not thrilled with touchpads, but they are better than the 'eraser' controls on laptops, and to this point I still can't get used to using just one mouse button.

Internet Explorer 5.2 soon shows up in the display, looking somewhat similar as IE on the PC, but having the Mac interface theme (Aqua - everything looks 'liquid', sort of like smooth clear gel-packs). This really intrigues me, as OS X is based on Darwin, a Open Source OS based on one of the BSD versions. BSD is basically Unix for personal computers - so that means the IE is running atop "Unix", which means it wouldn't be hard to port it to Linux. Hmmm. Have to look at this later.

So I put in the IP address of the firewall into IE 5.2 and start configuring. This is where I run into my first problem. You see, I like Linux and its plethora of browsers as well, whether it is Mozilla (and Firefox), Galeon, or any of the other choices you have. Choice is nice. Problem is that 90%+ of the online community uses IE on Windows, and thus many web sites and web interfaces are coded specifically to work with IE on Windows. I'm having a hard time having some of the settings 'stick' after I configure and apply them. So I switch over to Safari and try it. Safari is pretty cool, and has all of the polish, bells, and whistles you find in OS X. However, it gags on other pages. So by switching between Safari and IE, I get the firewall configured. I don't think this is the 'Switch' that Apple had in mind though.

So I finish using it, and the Drone asks me what I thought of the PowerBook (he's a big Apple aficionado now). I say it's neat, very polished and looks good, but I don't know much about OS X. So he says "Take it with you." Now you have to understand, you pay for all that good quality and design that goes into a Mac. This G4 is loaded up with Memory, Hard Drive Space, and the latest version of OS X, Panther. It's a $3500 system. I look at him incredulously, and say "Are you sure?".

"Yup" he says, "I've been sending my boss files from it, and they aren't quite formatted right, so I got this", pointing at the new Toshiba notebook, "you can take that for a few weeks and try it out, I'll call you when I need it back."

"Great" I say, "I've always wanted to learn OS X." I call it 'Oh-Ess-Ten', which I am told is the proper pronunciation. However, I have always pronounced it 'Os-Ess-Ex', as in X-Windows, the GUI for Unix/Linux/BSD on which OS X is based. Hence it should be pronounced with the "X" instead of "Ten". Yes, I know X is the roman numeral for 10, but that isn't the point.

I've had it for longer than a 'few weeks'. I suspect I will have it for quite a while, since I've talked to my Drone friend and he didn't even mention it. Using it right now to type up this review, using Firefox 0.9 - which is best browser I have found for OS X compatibility wise. IE and Safari don't render all the Blogger toolbars (and many other sites) correctly, which is strange, especially in IE's case.

So lets get back to the system itself. Hardware wise, it looks really neat. Laid out nicely. Keyboard characters 'light-up' in dark conditions, the display is awesome, it's thin, but a little on the heavy-side. But heavy to me means well-built. It has a Wireless 802.11g AirPort system built in, so it went right onto my WEP protected Wireless LAN with no problems. The sound from the speakers are the best I've heard on any notebook, comparable to the Toshiba Multimedia Karmon speakers on the notebook I linked to earlier. I don't care for the single-button touch pad, it doesn't quite feel right, not quite responsive enough (especially to clicks) no matter how high I turn the settings up. Maybe my Drone friend has abused it a little, and it's not typical of these systems, but another of my clients has one, and I seem to remember having the same experience. No matter, I plug in a standard Logitech USB two-button optical scroll mouse, and it works just fine.

Getting into the Interface, the 'Dock' is cool. However, having all the menus for each program at the top of the screen instead of the top of each Windows takes a little getting used to, and there's probably a setting somewhere or a way to do it, but I can't get multiple copies of some programs to open. For example, there is Remote Desktop for the Mac, you can use it to remote control your Windows XP, 2000 Server, and 2003 Server systems. However, I can only open one session at a time. I have to be doing something wrong. There has to be an 'Apple' key-combination (the 'Apple' key is like the 'Windows' key on the PC, it does different functions) that allows for mutilple copies to be open. So I'll chalk that up to my novice-ness. That is one thing that is taking longer to get used to, the 'Apple' key. It does many of the things that eliminate mouseclicks on the PC that the 'Control' key does, only the Macs have a Control key as well. So I keep hitting Control-C to Copy, and Control-V to paste instead of Applekey-C and Applekey-V respectively. Also, to do page-up/page-down/home/end, you have to use the 'fn' key with the arrow keys, and it doesn't always work right in some programs. Again, there might be some better combinations, but this is a Mac, it should be all intuitive, right? (OK, you Mac FANactics, sit down - I'm just poking you in your cage a little big).

All in all, a pretty good experience. Lets look at Mac's Switch List and see how I see it:

1. The Mac - It Just Works

OK - True. Since Apple knows all the hardware thats in the systems, there aren't any weird driver issues, or any of the other quirks that sometimes plague PCs. You start a program, and it just works. With hardware you plug in, its pretty much the same thing. Though some people have had problems with dual PC/Mac Hardware (see my Update in this post).

However, it suffers from the same problem that plagues all non IE on Windows systems - web page compatibility. Some just never render or function right. Yes, I know that is much of the time (but not all) the fault of the site designers, who specifically write for IE on Windows, but its something I have experienced.

2. It doesn't crash


I have crashed it three times in the last month. I have only crashed my main PC notebook computer once in the same time period, with using the PC more than the Mac, and that was while playing a very graphically and sound intensive game. The crashes in OS X occurred once in IE, once in iTunes, and once when I was switching to another application. Two of the times I had to follow the 'you must restart you computer' instructions the PowerBook presented to me to recover. The other I was able to recover by logging out and in again. However, my experience is not the norm for the average user. My PCs are all tuned up OS wise, and everything is kept in ship-shape. No spyware or other poorly written garbage programs allowed. I alse keep my systray clean of the million apps that want to run. I'd say however that the ease of installing applications on the Mac will help prevent crashes for the 'normal' user, but its not foolproof. I would however say it is stable.

UPDATE: Right after I finished this post, I wandered over to the 'Around the World in 80 Days" movie official website. I was watching the 'Extra Large' Quicktime trailer, and boom, got the Gray Screen of Death (You have to restart your computer) from OS X. iTunes was minimized, but not playing anything. I'm starting to see a pattern of iTunes/Web-browser in the crashes I am experiencing. All of the software (including iTunes) is up to date.

3. Simple the best in digital music

Subjective, but not too harsh of a claim. iTunes is nice, but WinAmp 5.0 has a lot of the same features and works just as well for me. In fact it does a few things better, and vice-versa. The sound quality on the Mac is excellent for a notebook. I have to add my Sound Blaster Audigy NX to get better sound and features from my notebook, but that isn't comparing Apples to Apples.

4. The missing link in digital photography

Going to skip this one, since I haven't done a thing with it. But a lot of the features it talks about I can get with several software packages for the PC, though again, they aren't 'built-in'. But again, you pay for the extras in the Mac, including the software.

5. Your own digital entertainment center

True. You'd have to add a lot to the PC to get many of the things that are built into the Mac, but again you are paying for all that stuff up front. However, nothing to install, and the SuperDrive sure is very nice. Especially the loading/unloading. No tray comes out that can get bent/broken. You just slip the disc in the front slot.

6. Goes everywhere you go.

I'm going to fisk this one:

"Light. Thin."
No. Yes. The 17" model is not light. Maybe the smaller ones are, but this sure isn't. Very thin, yes.

"Displays so bright and clear, you’d think you’re working on a desktop system."
Same can be said for my Netlux NX-755, albeit with a 15" screen. No advantage there. The 17" display on the Toshiba is just as good.

And they come standard with what some other laptops consider “extras”: capacious hard drives, built-in optical drives, USB, FireWire, Ethernet, modem, video out, audio in, WiFi.

Sorry, those are now standard in most notebook PCs that are the same price or less than the PowerBook. My $1400 Netlux has all that but the wireless, which I preferred to purchase separately as my needs are higher than most for wireless.

Can your PC laptop go coast to coast with just one battery? Can you put the system to sleep just by closing the lid? Does it wake up instantly? Can your PC laptop automatically switch between Ethernet, dial-up and wireless connections on the fly? Without a restart?

No, but neither can this PowerBook, the 17" model seems to suck the power. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Windows XP Professioal handles all those fucntionalities quite well. Even Fedora Core 2 does a lot of those.

Again, you pay a little more for all this. However, I will say that Apple does it all nicely together.

7. It's built for the Internet

Yes and No. Again, the browser compatibility issue. Whether fair or not, it will affect peoples decisions on using OS X and the Mac. Quicktime is good, but so are other formats for general use. You can chat, get e-mail, and get online just as quickly on a PC as on a Mac. Though because Windows is more targeted, its safer for the moment on a Mac. The more user-friendly Linux distros also do many of these things.

8. Office is Office, and then some

Some say Office on the Mac is better than Office on the PC. Haven't used it on the Mac enough, but it seems to have just as many features, no more or less, than Office 2003, which I use on the PC. However, my drone friend had to 'switch' back because some formatting wasn't quite 100% compatible. For the general user however, it would work just fine.

9. Works effortlessly with the PC.

Yes and No. Not effortlessly. You still have to download and configure some stuff on the Mac to use it with some PC networks. I have trouble with it and Windows 2003 Server. Otherwise, it is easy to find networks though the Mac interface. Again, I am new at the Mac and OS X, but I think I'm a little more technically inclined than the average user. It's just not as cut and dried as they say.

10. Its beautiful

Yes it is. I'll go along with that 100%.

All in all, it's a great system. I'm really hoping that my client forgets to ask for it back. I might have to come up with some excuse to delay its return. I would recommend it for a general home user over a PC if: They have the budget for it; They aren't going to need some specialized software that is only avaiable for Windows; They don't want to play the latest and greatest games right when they are released (or some ever); They want a system that is easy to use for Audio/Video/Digital Photography right out of the box; They are concerned about Spyware/Viruses.

I think it has the potential, just like desktop Linux, to gain marketshare if people can be convinced to use it. In fact, if there is any Desktop Unix-like OS that can compete with Windows, OS X can. It's already a polished system, unlike Linux (though Linux is getting there, slowly).